A new science of religion says God has gotten a bad rap.
When a moth flies at night, it uses the moon and the stars to steer a straight path. Those light sources are fixed and distant, so the rays always strike the moth's multilensed eyes at the same angle, making them reliable for nocturnal navigation. But introduce something else bright—a candle, say, or a campfire—and there will be trouble. The light radiates outward, confusing the moth and causing it to spiral ever closer to the blaze until the insect meets a fiery end.
For years Richard Dawkins has used the self-immolation of moths to explain religion. The example can be found in his 2006 best seller, The God Delusion, and it's been repeated in speeches and debates, interviews and blog posts. Moths didn't evolve to commit suicide; that's an unfortunate byproduct of other adaptations. In much the same way, the thinking goes, human beings embrace religion for unrelated cognitive reasons. We evolved to search for patterns in nature, so perhaps that's why we imagine patterns in religious texts. Instead of being guided by the light, we fly into the flames.
The implication—that religion is basically malevolent, that it "poisons everything," in the words of the late Christopher Hitchens—is a standard assertion of the New Atheists. Their argument isn't just that there probably is no God, or that intelligent design is laughable bunk, or that the Bible is far from inerrant. It's that religion is obviously bad for human beings, condemning them to ignorance, subservience, and endless conflict, and we would be better off without it.
But would we?
Before you can know for sure, you have to figure out what religion does for us in the first place. That's exactly what a loosely affiliated group of scholars in fields including biology, anthropology, and psychology are working on. They're applying evolutionary theory to the study of religion in order to discover whether or not it strengthens societies, makes them more successful, more cooperative, kinder. The scholars, many of them atheists themselves, generally look askance at the rise of New Atheism, calling its proponents ignorant, fundamentalist, and worst of all, unscientific. Dawkins and company have been no more charitable in return.
While the field is still young and fairly small—those involved haven't settled on a name yet, though "evolutionary religious studies" gets thrown around—its findings could reshape a very old debate. Maybe we should stop asking whether God exists and start asking whether it's useful to believe that he does.
Let's say someone gives you $10. Not a king's ransom, but enough for lunch. You're then told that you can share your modest wealth with a stranger, if you like, or keep it. You're assured that your identity will be protected, so there's no need to worry about being thought miserly. How much would you give?
If you're like most people who play the so-called dictator game, which has been used in numerous experiments, you will keep most of the money. In a recent study from a paper with the ominous title "God Is Watching You," the average subject gave $1.84. Meanwhile, another group of subjects was presented with the same choice but was first asked to unscramble a sentence that contained words like "divine," "spirit," and "sacred."
The second group of subjects gave an average of $4.22, with a solid majority (64 percent) giving more than five bucks. A heavenly reminder seemed to make subjects significantly more magnanimous. In another study, researchers found that prompting subjects with the same vocabulary made some more likely to volunteer for community projects. Intriguingly, not all of them: Only those who had a specific dopamine receptor variant volunteered more, raising the possibility that religion doesn't work for everybody.
A similar experiment was conducted on two Israeli kibbutzes. The scenario was more complicated: Subjects were shown an envelope containing 100 shekels (currently about $25). They were told that they could choose to keep as much of the money as they wished, but that another member of the kibbutz was being given the identical option. If the total requested by the participants (who were kept separated) exceeded 100 shekels, they walked away with nothing. If the total was less than or equal to 100, they were given the money plus a bonus based on what was left over.
The kicker is that one of the kibbutzes was secular and one was religious. Turns out, the more-devout members of the religious kibbutz, as measured by synagogue attendance, requested significantly fewer shekels and expected others to do the same. The researchers, Richard Sosis and Bradley Ruffle, ventured that "collective ritual has a significant impact on cooperative decisions."
Religion can elicit behavior that is good for society—sometimes.
See also a study that found that religious people were, in some instances, more likely to treat strangers fairly. Or the multiple studies suggesting that people who were prompted to think about an all-seeing supernatural agent were less likely to cheat. Or the study of 300 young adults in Belgium that found that those who were religious were considered more empathetic by their friends.
The results of other studies are less straightforward. A Harvard Business School researcher discovered that religious people were more likely to give to charity, but only on the days they worshiped, a phenomenon he dubbed the "Sunday Effect." Then there's the survey of how belief in the afterlife affected crime rates in 67 countries. Researchers determined that countries with high rates of belief in hell had less crime, while in those where the belief in hell was low and the belief in heaven high, there was more crime. A vengeful deity is better for public safety than a merciful one.
None of that research settles the value of belief, and much of it is based on assuming that certain correlations are meaningful or that particular techniques (like the one used in the dictator-game study) actually prime what researchers think they prime. And questions remain: How effective is religious belief, really, if it needs to be prompted with certain words? And is the only thing stopping you from robbing a liquor store really the prospect of eternal hellfire?
Still, a growing body of research suggests that religion or religious ideas, in certain circumstances, in some people, can elicit the kind of behavior that is generally good for society: fairness, generosity, honesty. At the very least, when you read the literature, it becomes difficult to confidently assert that religion, despite the undeniable evil it has sometimes inspired, is entirely toxic.
That is David Sloan Wilson's point, or one of them anyway. Wilson, a professor of biology and anthropology at Binghamton University, is an atheist (as was his father, the novelist Sloan Wilson) who is interested in finding out what religion does, from an evolutionary perspective, for individuals and societies. Why does belief in the supernatural cut across cultures, and why has it persisted for millennia? He took a crack at such dauntingly large questions in his book Darwin's Cathedral, arguing that religion bestows an array of evolutionary advantages on groups of believers.
Wilson is in his early 60s, thin, white-haired, excitable. You get the sense that he might bubble over at any moment, and sometimes he does, issuing a four-letter invective in the midst of a multisyllabic explication. His most recent book is The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time. There isn't much Wilson thinks Darwin can't do. The professor's Skype handle is "evostud."
In two blog posts, one in March and one in May, Wilson questioned whether Richard Dawkins "might fail to qualify" as an evolutionist for, among other shortcomings, ignoring research on the evolution of religion. He has scolded the New Atheists for a militancy he sees as equivalent to religious fundamentalism. Firing shots at Dawkins is old hat for Wilson. When he reviewed The God Delusion, in 2007, he called Dawkins "deeply misinformed" on evolution. (Dawkins replied that the purpose of the book was not to discuss "religion's possible evolutionary advantages.") In a recent interview, Wilson declared that Dawkins and his fellow New Atheists "don't understand the nature of the beast" and yet still "go on and on in a very ignorant fashion."
When asked for comment via e-mail, Dawkins sent a link to a blog post by Jerry Coyne, a professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, and wrote that he had nothing to add to that "brilliant takedown." In the post, Coyne mocks Wilson as a whiner whose ideas have been ignored by mainstream scientists and who is "blinded by hubris." It's the kind of scorched-earth exasperation that has become Coyne's trademark. To drive the point home, he embeds a YouTube clip from Finding Nemo in which a pelican tells some annoying sea gulls to shut up. The sea gulls are, presumably, Wilson.
The substance of Coyne's criticism is that while Wilson is speculating about religion's origins, which Coyne sees as a quixotic endeavor, he and other New Atheists are on the front lines battling extremists, and that Wilson would do well to enlist. Coyne, in an interview, doesn't dispute the claim that religion might serve as a sort of societal glue, but he's not sure that's a point in its favor. "Does it bind a community together if they throw acid in the face of a schoolgirl?" he asks.
PZ Myers has sounded a similar note. Myers, an associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota at Morris, writes the popular blog Pharyngula, which is subtitled "Evolution, development, and random biological ejaculations from a godless liberal." He has a generally low opinion of those who, like Wilson, equate evangelical atheism with evangelical Christianity, saying in a Reddit question-and-answer session that such people deserve "a good punch to the balls." He said it with a smile in the video, but it seemed as if he meant it.
He responded to Wilson by maintaining that only one word was required to prove that religion is more destructive than beneficial: women. "Those with eyes to see," Myers wrote, "can see for themselves that religion has for thousands of years perpetuated the oppression of half of our species," which is "reason enough to tear down our cathedrals." Some commenters were even more disdainful, like the one who branded Wilson a "hypocrite quisling."
Going tit for tat, though with a touch less venom, Wilson accused Myers of "not functioning as a scientist" on the subject of religion. "It's absurd for Myers to say that the impact of religion on human welfare can be understood merely by opening one's eyes," he wrote. Myers says that Wilson is advancing an overly benign portrait of faith in support of his pet idea. Wilson contends that Myers and the rest are fabricating a cartoon version of religion, one that doesn't grapple with the science, and deciding on the outcome (religion is bad) before the evidence is in.
Like Wilson, Scott Atran, an anthropologist at France's National Center for Scientific Research, is an atheist ("Yes!" he exclaimed when asked) and an evolutionist whose book In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion was one of the first, along with Darwin's Cathedral, by Wilson, and Religion Explained, by Pascal Boyer, to chart a course for the field (the first two books were published in 2002 and Boyer's in 2001). In his book, Atran, who also teaches at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, calls religion an evolutionary byproduct, a sort of cognitive accident. He's since modified his view to take into account the apparent culturally adaptive upside of faith. Atran, whose most recent book is about faith and terrorism, describes New Atheism as moronic. "I don't see anything in the New Atheists' work that tells us anything at all about religion," he says, "and I think their ad hominem attacks are ridiculous."
That view is echoed by Dominic Johnson, a professor of biopolitics at the University of Edinburgh, who has written about how the threat of supernatural punishment appears to enhance cooperation. The trouble, he says, is that the New Atheists have become the face of science. On one side, there is antiscience fundamentalism. On the other, there are pro-science New Atheists. "Whatever they say tends to be taken as the scientific perspective on religion, that it's representing the whole of science," Johnson says. "That's a problem."
Of course, you can hardly blame the New Atheists for their own success. They've been speaking out against religious extremism in all its malicious forms, whether it's states permitting pseudoscience in school curricula or suicide bombers angling for a post-mortem harem. By comparison, humble studies of who takes the most money from an envelope can feel trivial. But it's not the criticism of ecclesiastical overreach that bothers Wilson and Atran; it's the conflation of science and advocacy. Wilson supports efforts to destigmatize atheism, like the running feature "Why I Am an Atheist" on Pharyngula, and said so in his anti-Dawkins posts. Atran believes that "attacking obscurantic, cruel, lunatic ideas is always a good idea." It's proclaiming that religion is rotten to the core that they think is misguided.
That includes laying the blame for much of human conflict at the feet of the faithful. In a recent Science article, Atran and Jeremy Ginges, an associate professor of psychology at the New School, cite evidence suggesting that "only a small minority of recorded wars" have been mainly motivated by religious disputes (though making distinctions between religious and political causes is notoriously knotty). They complain in the article that the New Atheists are quick to remind everyone how fundamentalism fuels Al Qaeda but neglect to mention the role of churches in the civil-rights movement. The New Atheists are, according to Atran and Ginges, cherry-picking the horrors. "Science produced a nuclear bomb. Therefore we should throw away science," says Atran, to illustrate the baby-bathwater logic. "Sometimes it can be really noxious, and other times it can be quite helpful."
The bad blood between Wilson and Dawkins isn't only about religion. Wilson has, for decades, been an advocate of the theory of group selection: the idea that human beings (and other organisms) have genetic adaptations that benefit the group rather than the individual. That may not sound like cause for much of a quarrel, but if he is right it would require a rethinking of natural selection and a rewriting of textbooks, including The Selfish Gene, another Dawkins best seller. Group-selection theory is often dismissed as unnecessary because the behavior it supposedly explains, many biologists say, can be accounted for in other ways, like kinship selection (we sacrifice for our family to perpetuate our genes) or reciprocal altruism (we're nice to others so they'll be nice to us). Group selectionists counter that the math behind kinship-selection theory doesn't add up, and that there are behaviors that it simply can't explain.
The controversy waxes and wanes and lately has been experiencing a resurgence, in part because group selection has been embraced by E.O. Wilson, who is no relation to David Sloan Wilson except now as brothers in championing a highly contested theory. Dawkins, not surprisingly, panned the esteemed Harvard biologist's latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth, saying readers were forced to "wade through many pages of erroneous and downright perverse misunderstandings of evolutionary theory." Dawkins also made a list of scientists who agree with him. Wilson (E.O., not D.S.) replied that if science depended on polls, "we would still be burning objects with phlogiston and navigating with geocentric maps."
But while the addition of a scientific heavyweight to their numbers was a coup for group selectionists, another brand-name intellectual, Steven Pinker, recently published an essay laying out why he agrees with Dawkins that the siren call of group selection should be resisted. Group selection, he writes, has "no useful role to play in psychology or social science" and "refers to too many things."
It was group selection that sparked Wilson's interest in religion, which he called "the groupiest thing around" because of how effectively it knits believers together. But some others in the new field don't see how arguments over group selection have much to do with the evolution of religion. They espouse the fuzzier and less controversial notion of "cultural group selection," which skirts the question of a genetic preference for religion.
Whether this deserves to be classified as "group selection" is up for discussion (that is what Pinker meant by "too many things"). Atran sees genetic group selection as unlikely and not necessary to explain the evolution of religion. Richard Sosis, a professor of anthropology at the University of Connecticut and an author of the studies on cooperation at kibbutzes, thinks the debate is a distraction. The "assumed association" between the evolutionary study of religion and the theory of group selection is "unfortunate," he says.
Another source of friction is over where Wilson and some of his fellow scholars get money for their research. The John Templeton Foundation has been a generous backer of research into the evolution of religion. Wilson has received several of those grants, in the low six figures, as have others in the field. Templeton's stated mission is to answer "big questions," but it's been criticized by some scientists for its preference for research that blends religion and science. Winners of the foundation's annual Templeton Prize often have to defend their acceptance of the sizable (around $1.5-million) check. Dawkins has been critical of Templeton, as has Daniel Dennett, another New Atheist stalwart and best-selling author. Wilson and others say the money comes with no strings attached.
Then again, skewering God makes for better box office.
Among the New Atheists, Dennett has given the most attention to analyzing what religion does and how it came to be. He has written a book on that topic, though the tone is less investigative than prosecutorial. It begins by comparing religion to a lancet fluke, a type of parasite that invades the brains of ants. Later he calls religion an attractive nuisance, like a swimming pool stumbled into by an unwatched toddler. Even the title, Breaking the Spell, gives away the conclusion. In an interview, Dennett explains it this way: "One of the good reasons for studying religion is that it does so much harm, and it's worth trying to figure out how to control it."
As for where religion came from, Dennett surveys the theories, calling Wilson's "the best case to date" for the argument that religion fosters cooperation within groups, while also making plain that he isn't exactly on board. He writes that we're decades of research away from arriving at a conclusion on the provenance and usefulness of the divine.
Wilson and Dennett have been amiable adversaries in the past, though that friendship lately has been strained. While Dennett doesn't regard Wilson as an enemy, he's exasperated by his attacks on Dawkins. "I'm getting fed up with David," he says. Dennett also finds Wilson's prominence in the field overstated, and says Wilson tries to drum up cheap attention by going after New Atheists: "Is he the leading theorist? I wouldn't say so." Wilson chides Dennett for "not doing his homework" in Breaking the Spell, instead bashing what he doesn't understand.
Homework or no, Breaking the Spell was a best seller, while Darwin's Cathedral was not. If the conflict over the best scientific approach to religion is measured in popularity, the New Atheists would win with ease. As of this writing, PZ Myers has more than 100,000 followers on Twitter and Wilson has around 500. A YouTube clip of Dawkins tying Bill O'Reilly into knots has over four million views, while Wilson interviewing a fellow scholar, Michael Blume, on his findings about religion and fertility has around 300. Skewering God makes for better box office.
Wilson is trying to seize a piece of that limelight by engaging the New Atheists in a public back-and-forth and by starting an ambitious online magazine, Evolution: This View of Life, devoted to "anything and everything" about evolutionary theory. Other work is also under way. Dominic Johnson is leading a two-year, Templeton-supported project at the Center of Theological Inquiry to look at the "relationship between religion, culture, and human evolution," while Ara Norenzayan, an associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, is writing a book on "how pro-social religions with watchful gods helped human groups scale up from small hunting and foraging bands to the vast, complex societies of today."
The New Atheists have deemed Wilson not only wrong but dull. Coyne writes that if Dawkins took Wilson's advice and discussed the evolution of religion in detail, it would make for a "long and boring lecture." Myers compares Wilson's communication skills with Dawkins's and finds Wilson sadly wanting. For Wilson, though, it's the New Atheists who have become a bore. If you've seen one video of Dawkins slaying a naïve believer, you've seen them all. If you've read one New Atheist anti-God tome, you know what the others will say. Wilson insists that trying to discover why we believe is more intriguing than the debate over whether anyone is up there looking down.
Tom Bartlett is a senior writer for The Chronicle.